June 12, 2009

BOOKS: A Devil to Play, Jasper Rees (2008)

If nothing else, Jasper Rees's midlife crisis takes a unique form. No cheap floozies or expensive cars for him, by golly. No, Rees decides that the way to put meaning back into his life as he nears 40 is to return to the French horn, an instrument he hasn't touched in nearly 20 years.

But simply returning to his teenage level of proficiency -- he had been a moderately competent high-school band member -- isn't enough for Rees. He vows that in one year, he will play the third Mozart Horn Concerto at the annual meeting of the British Horn Society. Why the Mozart 3? Well, it's generally considered to be the easiest of the major horn concertos.

Which isn't to say that it's easy, mind you. As Rees lets us know, nothing about the horn is easy. It's ranked by Guinness as the most difficult orchestral instrument (tied with the oboe), and pitfalls seem to lie in wait around every corner for the horn player. Not the least of these is that for a variety of bizarre historical reasons, the horn player, alone among the orchestra, is expected to transpose nearly every piece of music he plays -- that is, to play different notes than are actually written on the page.

Rees's report of his year's journey is a marvelous piece of entertainment. He gives us the history of the instrument, gets advice and lessons from many of its most skilled players (who are a remarkably patient group), and describes his fumbling progress towards an appearance on the BHS stage. Rees's writing is filled with that dry wit that seems to come naturally to the British. He's informative without ever making the reader as if a ton of dry information is being dumped on him. A Devil to Play is a charming book, and anyone who's ever daydreamed about picking up that instrument they used to play (or picking one up for the first time) will love it.

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